As a sixth-generation Texan, I didn’t want to get beat up by cheering for the Astros in New York City. So when I woke up Friday morning, I started looking for Astros bars to watch game one of the American League Championship Series. After a quick Google search, I found a story on New York City’s ABC affiliate. In a video called “Battle of the Bars,” reporter Jim Dolan pit an Astros bar, Avenida Cantina, against Legends, one of the many Yankees bars. “I could not stay at that bar,” Dolan says about Avenida Cantina. “It was just like Astros second baseman Jose Altuve: tiny and, you know, kind of annoying.” What a surprise, I thought. A Yankees fan being a Yankees fan: loud and, you know, in need of a swift punch in the face.
The idea of a rowdy, crowded piece of Houston in Manhattan piqued my interest, so that night, I head to the Texas-themed Tex-Mex restaurant on the Lower East Side. I didn’t know what to expect at Avenida Cantina, nor did I know who I’d find there, or what I’d find. But I sought redemption for a group of queso-loving, Lone Star-drinkin’ Texas expats. In the end, I found some Astros fans whose loyalty would rival just about anybody’s out there.
When I got to Avenida Cantina, I realized Dolan wasn’t entirely wrong. It is a tiny bar. The restaurant seating in the back two-thirds is a bit bigger, and it’s like what you’d typically find at a cantina on the Lower East Side—tight and cozy, with just enough room to move around, but not too much. And it was booming on Friday night. More so than usual. Maybe more so than ever, with a steady stream of people flowing in and out. Some people stood outside and watched the game from an open window. Inside, there was hardly any standing room around the bar. Just about every one of the 200 guests wore an Astros hat or jersey—in many cases, both. Almost everyone drank Lone Star tallboys—the camo ones.
So I did what Texans do: I started talking to people. Many Tex-pats had found Avenida Cantina through word-of-mouth, including C.J. Cirigliano, an NBC employee from Houston who’s lived here for five years. He found out about this place while watching the Astros in May at Yankee Stadium. He noticed a guy sitting a few rows in front of him wearing an Astros hat. They started talking, and he told Cirigliano about the Houston expat bar on the Lower East Side. “I checked it out and was won over by the queso,” he says.
Cirigliano wasn’t the only person to mention the queso. I’ll definitely have to try that at some point, I thought. But I was set on meeting other Texans—like Rahat Ahmed from Alief, who came to New York seventeen years ago to go to school at New York University. “I’m a die-hard fan,” he says. “I picked the Astros as a kid, and sometimes you’ve got to stick with the team that you supported and grew up with. I went through the early 90s with the Astros. Lived through the heartbreak in ‘05. Hopefully this is it.”
Randy Richards also went to NYU, and like Ahmed, he grew up watching the Astros. He found out about Avenida when it hosted a couple of Hurricane Harvey fundraisers last month. Even though he’s lived in New York for twelve years, Richards hasn’t given up on a team that’s never won a World Series. “You still hold onto your memories from your childhood,” he says.
Rahim Kurji’s been coming to the bar for four years to watch the Texans, even back when it was named Idle Hands and a group of Texans would come just to watch the games together on Sundays. “This team has brought out the resiliency in the city,” he says about the Astros. “I’ve been a Houston sports fan through and through.” He can be anywhere on the planet, and he’ll still wake up to check the team’s box scores when the game’s over.
— Houston Astros (@astros) October 16, 2017
Avenida’s head chef, Adriana Maldonado, perched at the bar with a Corona. Why not a Lone Star, I ask. “It’s just not my style,” says the Humble native. She tells me I have to try her queso. She doesn’t just tell me, she makes me—she knows a Texan well. Her queso is something sacred—“liquid gold,” as she calls it. What does she put in it? “I can’t tell you that,” she says.
Maldonado was the proudest Texan tonight at the bar. Not only because it’s the bottom of the seventh with a 2-0 Astros lead, and not only because the Astros are knocking on the door of a World Series appearance, dangerously close to a momentous accomplishment. She’s happy because this place feels like home, because her friends are here eating her food, because these ex-Houstonians are holding their breaths for a team, for a city, they all love deeply.
By the time everyone was good and juiced, it was the top of the ninth with a one-run lead, two outs and two strikes. Then, Ken Giles pitched a strike.
Game over. 1-0.
The place erupted. I was offered high-fives. Everyone was hugging another, chanting, screaming, enjoying a moment that’s all too rare for these fans.
It took a while for the place to settle down. You could tell everyone was relieved, yes. No question. But some were reluctant. Why get your hopes up when you’ve been let down so many times?
I came here to find Texans. But what I really found were a group of people who live for loyalty. Folks who are united in rooting against the Yankees in New York. Most everyone at the bar at Avenida Cantina on Friday night went to Yankee Stadium for games three or four. And yes, the Yankees have 27 World Series wins and forty American League championships. The Astros have no World Series wins and just one league championship. But that’s the reason everyone was here. That’s why Houston expats in New York are reveling right now.
I did eventually try the queso—and each of the tacos. Were they good? The best I’ve had in New York. But I think I speak for the loyal patrons of Avenida Cantina when I say that an Astros miracle this season might be even better than Maldonado’s queso.